Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
This year’s annual offering from the Summer Savoyards is the darkest of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, but The Yeomen of the Guard is no less the enjoyable musical farce for all its grim emotional underpinnings. Stage Director William Clark Snyder and Music Director Matthew Vavalle have given audiences the opportunity to catch a rare gem from the duo best known for jolly pirates or simpering schoolgirls in kimonos.
Yeomen, last presented by the Savoyards in 2006, tells a somewhat convoluted tale of thwarted love in all classes and conditions. While many of the best-known G&S works take place in imaginary or highly unlikely places and times, this one is firmly set in the Tower of London in the 16th century. (Look for the iconic ravens perched atop a crenellated tower in the well-designed stage set.) The historical keeper at the time, Sir Richard Cholmondeley, is part of the production, as is the oft-referenced brutal and fatal history of the Tower itself.
The action starts with the imminent execution of a falsely accused nobleman, Colonel Fairfax (Jarod Hinton), and how his loyal former comrades-in-arms, led by Sergeant Meryll (Dylan Ruffo), contrive to save him when a promised reprieve fails to materialize. Fairfax asks Sir Richard to find him a wife, any wife, for the space of an hour before his execution to thwart the plans of the greedy relative whose accusations brought him to the Tower. Enter the strolling players,Jack Point (Shan Towns) and Elsie Maynard (Alison Wahl), themselves a “couple,” who accept the marriage arrangement to acquire money to help Elsie’s ailing mother.
The motif of “duty” runs deep through the play, whether through Elsie’s sacrifice or as carried out by the stalwart band of Tower warders and praised in song by the Tower-born-and-bred Dame Carruthers (Jessica Pullis). Later in the second act, Elsie, who by this point has fallen in love with the escaped Fairfax in the guise of Leonard Meryll, rejects her sweetheart’s offer to flee and stands by her unknown husband.
Amidst the play’s doom and gloom, symbolized by the executioner’s block on center stage, there is ample supply of the trademark G&S comic relief in both song and performance. Jack Point provides much of it as the jester who is constantly reminded that “Do you know that you’re paid to be funny?” Whether conversing with his marotte (the stick topped with a jester’s head) or making up a “tale of cock and bull” with the menacing head jailer, Wilfred Shadbolt (Rick Barton), Point does his best to lighten the load for all within the Tower precincts through his several “jibes and jokes”.
Several songs and situations highlight the paradox — always a G&S staple — of those who are ready to love, but unable to find a suitable or willing partner. The one-sided love affairs of some minor characters yield many comic encounters. Shadbolt is smitten with Phoebe Meryll (Jana Kucera), who flirts shamelessly to steal the dungeon keys to free her beloved, Fairfax. Dame Carruthers similarly pursues Phoebe’s father with dogged determination; their duet’s refrain of “Ghastly, ghastly/Joyful, joyful” underscores the unhappy fate that awaits both father and daughter who sacrifice themselves on the marriage altar to protect the secret of Fairfax’s escape and subsequent disguise as Leonard Meryll.
This comedy, which turns into real tragedy in the final scene, the only one like it in all the G&S repertoire, in which a heartbroken Jack Point sees Elsie leave the Tower on the arm of her husband, Fairfax. She looks back in sadness and sympathy to acknowledge his pain and loss of happiness through a final chorus of their signature song, and he collapses in despair.
This undercurrent of romance gone wrong amidst danger, deceit — and even death — underscores the operatic component of the play. Yeomen, which opened Friday (July 26), echoes Il Trovatore or Rigoletto, and its vibrant musicality supports that impression of a more serious work. The projection of song lyrics on the side wall screen helps to appreciate the music even more, just as it does in major opera houses. While not as well known as some other G&S works, Yeomen has some truly memorable tunes that will immediately become ear worms upon departure.
Many performers bring sterling vocal abilities to their dramatic roles. Kucera and especially Wahl are noteworthy for their powerful and controlled voices that offer rich nuances of feeling throughout. Hinton has an equally rich tenor voice that pairs well with Wahl’s in their duets. Ruffo and Towns each deliver music and solid comedic acting in equal measure.
The chorus of Warders and townspeople supports these primary players with charm and satisfying vocals. The costumes are particularly attractive and accurate, from the bright scarlet of the Warders’ tunics, to motley garb of Point and Elsie.
IF YOU GO: The Yeomen of the Guard continues at 7:30 p.m. today (Saturday, July 27) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (July 28) in the Chamber Hall at the Anderson Center at Binghamton University. General admission tickets are $22 ($20 for students/seniors; $12 for ages 12 and under). Call 777-ARTS to reach the Anderson Center box office or visit www.summersavoyards.org/tickets.